Recently, it seems as if having a good center on your offensive line has become important. During the NFL Draft, we’ve seen a trend of interior offensive linemen (primarily centers in college) being selected in the first round. Three years ago, the Indianapolis Colts selected Ryan Kelly out of Alabama with the 18th overall pick. Last year, we had Billy Price and Frank Ragnow go back-to-back at the 20th and 21st picks. This year, we had the Minnesota Vikings select Garrett Bradbury out of North Carolina State with the 18th pick.
Could we see this happen next year in the 2020 NFL Draft?
Anything is possible, and in the early stages of the process, this draft seems to be talented at offensive tackle. As for the interior offensive line, again, it’s still very early, and there are a lot of players left to study. However, there’s one player that could check a lot of the boxes that the players listed above did for me when I scouted them.
Meet Zach Shackelford from the University of Texas. He’s entering his senior season with plenty of experience under his belt. Shack (we’re going to roll with that nickname) has played in 40 games and has 27 career starts for the Longhorns. On the field, he earned first-team All Big-12 in 2018. Off the field, he’s been on the Academic All Big-12 team since his arrival to Austin.
Before he made it there, he was committed to Kansas State but ended up pulling his commitment. In high school, he was a two-time all-state honoree in football for Belton High School and competed in powerlifting as a junior. He also competed in track and field as a freshman and sophomore.
Not everything has been easy for Shack at Texas, though. He’s had to persevere through injuries throughout his tenure. From an ankle injury as a freshman to a concussion and to a sprained foot last season, he’s missed some games and practices. Yet he’s still performing at a high level, and we can only hope that he continues that trend and stays healthy during his senior season for the Longhorns. This season, he’ll be one of their key players and will certainly be on the Rimington Trophy watchlist (best center in college football) for 2019, just like he was during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Let’s take a look at why he’ll be a key player for them and why he could be a player we talk about more as we approach the 2020 NFL Draft!
Disappointing first game vs. Maryland
Note to self: don’t set the expectations so high before watching a player. If you do, prepare to be disappointed. That’s exactly what this first game was for Zach Shackelford and the Longhorns. It wasn’t all his fault, but he did himself no favors, and at one point, I didn’t think I’d make it through the rest of the tape. Fortunately, I powered through and came to the conclusion that he had more to give than what he showed on that day.
Like I’ve mentioned, this game was far from great. It was borderline ugly, in my opinion. For starters, Mbi Tanyi (DL #50) for Maryland used a push-pull technique twice and a swim move to get around Shackelford and pressure the quarterback. This led to Shack being lost in space and searching for another down to get redemption. Unfortunately, he didn’t find it.
The play above shows Shackelford with a good base and hand placement. He also ends up landing on top of the nose tackle, but he never shows any real drive or overpowering strength that’s coveted in offensive linemen. He allows the nose tackle to fight back inside and help clog the A-gap. Keep in mind, too, that the safety does a nice job filling on this and making the play in the backfield.
One play that stood out from a more positive perspective was the play above. Shackelford eases himself into pass protection and shows good footwork to mirror the defensive tackle. Hand placement was good throughout the rep, and he never lost any ground. More often than not, it looks as if he’s got a tendency to stalemate a defensive lineman (which is still a win) rather than drive and finish them.
Red River Rivalry Redemption
Despite the Maryland game leaving me disappointed, the Red River Rivalry game (Texas-Oklahoma) sparked my interest. Not every rep was perfect, and there were times that Shackelford was on the ground, again losing to a push-pull technique, but overall, it was a much better showing.
Finally, we get another player in the dirt! As you can tell from the play above, Shackelford lets the defensive lineman cross his face, then he clears him out of the way and drives him into the dirt. This rep is won with hand placement, but most importantly, good leg drive. It’s not something that he’s lacking, but it’s something he doesn’t do consistently enough. To see this rep was a breath of fresh air.
Not once did I see this against Maryland, so it has to be the rivalry factor, right? Here we see a screen to the wide receiver; Shack starts to get in space but doesn’t hit anyone. Once a pile is created, he charges towards it and pushes it a couple of extra yards. This will earn any player bonus points, no matter what.
Outside of the left tackle allowing penetration inside, this play wouldn’t have been blown up from the start. It wouldn’t have gotten that much positive yardage, but the primary focus is Shackelford picking up the blitz from the linebacker. He commits to helping the left guard, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to be able to turn back inside, but he finds a way and sticks a nice hit on the blitzer. The play will get overlooked because of where it ended, but still a nice pickup by Shack.
It would be wrong to put Shackelford in the same category as previous first-round centers right now. Fortunately, he’s got room to improve and time on his side. If he can put everything together and string together consistent reps on every series, my outlook will change on him. I’m not saying you can’t draft him — you absolutely can. Where? That remains to be seen, and it’s far too early in the process right now.
After studying some of his tape, the good certainly outweighs the bad, so don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. I like what I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen it consistently enough. He will need to show more leg drive on running plays, and he’ll have to clean up some of his footwork when operating in space. By doing so, he’ll get better when reach blocking or getting to the hashes on screens.
He can win as a pass blocker; he can anchor, normally has good hand placement, and keeps his head on a swivel. The expectations will be high for the senior offensive lineman, but fortunately for Shackelford and Texas, the potential to improve and become more consistent is there.